Tag Archives: Juvenile Fiction

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

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Sheila Burnford’s animal saga is a nice little story that somehow doesn’t manage to achieve greatness at any point through it’s duration. Mind you. every child should read this charming novel once in their lives, and for the most part it has managed not to age since it’s first publication in the sixties; it’s a sweetly rendered love letter to house pets and the great Canadian wilderness as well as a suitable read aloud.

Still, The Incredible Journey’ fails to be truly riveting, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason I feel this way. The story follows an irresistible bull terrier protagonist, Bodger, and his two animal friends (a Labrador and a Siamese cat) as they brave a arduous trek across Canadian soil to find their beloved masters. There are many challenges along the way, of course, presented in episodic fashion, and Carl Burger provides lovely illustrations portraying the animals’ daunting journey.

Two film adaptations came out after the books release, a 1963 version, the more realistic one by far. and a tame Walt Disney remake in 1993, a bastardization in many ways while still remaining a relatively charming family film. People who watch the 1993 film might get a confused notion about what the book itself is about. While “Homeward Bound” (as the remake is called) applies celebrity voice actors to the animal characters, there is barely any dialogue at all in the book. The animals certainly don’t talk.

Instead of giving the animals human voices, the novel concentrates one portraying the canines and their feline companion with their animal behavior intact while still making them likable and endearing. This book is a little darker and much more serious than “Homeward Bound,” and sometimes comes off as a little frosty and distant without the voices of the animals we 90’s kids have come to expect from childrens’ entertainment.

While the book is much more mature and artistically sound, there are times when one gets a chilly vibe from the brief volume, where individual events and supporting characters aren’t focused on for more than a few pages. The main thing that supplies this book with life is the exquisite charcoal drawings, cozy and warm additions to the text.

The real strength of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is Burnford’s obvious skill writing prose as well as her ability to make the animal characters sympathetic without having them say a single word. The old bull terrier, Bodger, will win your heart with his undying loyalty and steadfast sweetness as well as his adorable love of children and particularly the unlikely bond he shares with his feline friend, Tao.

Something about this book- maybe the slim size- makes it feel a bit unsubstantial, like a sweet that you savor before it all too quickly disappears down your throat and into your stomach, leaving you hungry for more. However, it’s a book that kids and adults should like just fine and it endearing, if like the metaphorical sweetie, not quite filling.

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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I can’t believe it took me until late into my teens to read this wonderful classic. Mary Lennox, a sour-faced orphan who has been allowed to do anything she likes for her entire life, but has never been loved, arrives at a gloomy British estate to live with distant family. Raised in India, Mary is unused to the cold English weather and the British sensibilities, and finds her life taking a turn for the better. She quickly befriends a Yorkshire lad named Dickon who has a special way with the animals, and solves the mystery of a wailing boy whose cries she can hear from her room at night. And best of all, Mary discovers a seemingly enchanted garden that has been blocked off for years after an unthinkable tragedy.

“The Secret Garden” was published in 1911, and remains a timeless classic more than a century later. This success is no doubt based in it’s inspirational optimism and literary magic, all while being basically grounded in reality. Mary starts out as a brat but is never really a hateable character. She has never known caring or compassion, and without parental devotion, getting what you want on any given day means nothing. Dicken is delightful throughout, and there is really not much development on his part during the book.

‘Invalid’/hypochondriac Colin, Mary’s counterpart in bitterness and lonely angst, is not loved by his brooding, absent father, and he has been told he will be crippled and deformed if he does live to grow up. Colin is a tyrant who kicks and screams and makes all the servants at the manor’s lives a living hell. Mary’s combination of friendship and tough love redeems Colin, and they soon experience psychological transformations at the beckoning of the garden and themselves.

The writing in “The Secret Garden” is beautiful, and makes an ideal read-aloud. It might be a little descriptive for modern kids with short attention spans, and that’s a shame, because it really is a terrific book. Boys who aren’t too self-conscious about reading a ‘girls book’ will find a lot to enjoy here too. The portrayal of two kids pulling themselves out of despair and finding a new future together rings true.

Everyone who cares to read a brilliant piece of fiction should read this book. I am eager to read “The Little Princess” again (the first time I read it I was nine) when I get the chance. “The Secret Garden” belongs in a similar category to the “Harry Potter” books as perennial classics that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike for years to come.

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Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

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10-year-old Caitlyn Smith has always coped better with her older brother Devon by her side. For a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, support from friends and family is crucial, and Devon teaches her how to fit in in her small Virginia town. But now Devon is gone, his life taken senselessly by a school shooter, and Caitlyn must navigate the confusing and sometimes hostile world without Devon’s guiding hand. Like many people with Asperger’s, Caitlyn is a literal and black-and-white thinker, and as she struggles to understand her loss and grapples with making friends and learning empathy, she decides that ‘closure’ is something she and her father would very much like.

“Mockingbird” is lyrical and sweet, however brief. Caitlyn isn’t like a stereotypical Aspie with a robotic narration solving math problems in her head. Her voice is unique, faraway but strong and present, and she is a gifted artist. Tentatively at her counselor Mrs. Brooks’ urging she befriends a six-year-old boy whose mother was killed in the shooting, and learns to cope.

The author was inspired to write this book after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre. The crime was terrible, of course, but these things seem to be becoming so common that they all just sort of blur together for me. I remember Sandy Hook particularly shook me up because the victims were little kids and it was unimaginable that a grown man would want to go in there and do that to a bunch of Kindergartners.

There’s a considerable lack of depth in the secondary players (and a little bit more development of Josh, the second most interesting character, might of been in order) but this may reflect Caitlyn’s lack of understanding of her family and peers. I found myself oddly unmoved by the emotional element, although the prose is well structured. I didn’t cry or even really get sad reading it. Instead, I appreciated it, but it failed to make me experience big feelings.

Kathryn Erskine has written a sensitive book, and she has created an Aut-Lit (Autism Spectrum literature) narrative that is well-done and original. If she had written a bit more or gone deeper into the psychological/social/family aspects, it might have gotten a 4 Star Rating from me. “Mockingbird” is short and sweet, but lacks the bite or depth to make it a classic.

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